In the early 1990s, when I was in my late 30s, I lived in Huntington Woods, a small suburb of Detroit near Royal Oak. I had lived in many parts of Detroit over the past dozen or so years (near the Algiers Motel just north of the New Center, by Harpo’s on the east side, on Grand Circus Park next to where Comerica Park is now, and in the Grandmont #1 subdivision near Rosedale Park on the northwest side of the city), and I would soon move back to the Ann Arbor area. In addition to living by where I-696 was being built and by the City of Detroit’s Rackham Golf Course (where Joe Louis and many of the Motown artists had played), I was close enough to the Detroit Zoo that I could hear some of the animals (mostly seals) from my front yard.
For one year, I got an annual pass to the zoo which entitled me to free admission. I was a regular there during the quiet winter months. Attendance was sparse, compared to the summer months. When there are thousands of visitors at the zoo, most of the animals pretty much tune them out. When there are only a handful of people coming by during the day, the humans seem more interesting than they would be otherwise (one factor could be that with fewer homo sapiens present, the odds are better that one of them just might be the Bearer of Food). The cold weather also made some animals more active during the day. The arctic foxes were always capering about, looking like extra fierce pomeranians. Near the foxes were the hyenas, who always seemed to appreciate my visits.
I had a rather ratty (and smelly) green winter coat that I always wore and during those cold, quiet, and deserted months at the zoo, the hyenas and I developed a little game of hide and seek. I would try to sneak up on their enclosure, hiding behind benches and trash cans. But whether by sight, sound, or smell, my playmates were always able to sense my approach.
By early spring, more people were going to the zoo. There was a field trip of grade-school kids around the hyena enclosure, boisterously trying in vain to attract the animals’ attention. When the Detroit Zoo was built in the 1920s, it was one of the first zoos to experiment with enclosures that didn’t have bars. The hyenas were in an area that was separated from the paying public by a moat and a low wall.
The hyenas were a study of boredom and nonchalance in the face of the children’s best efforts. That changed instantly when the hyenas got wind of their old playmate (me) wearing his trademark jacket. The hyenas went to battle stations, hunkering down and backing up with tiny steps as though they were preparing to leap. The hyenas were not the only ones whose affect underwent a sudden and profound transformation. There was panic and mass hysteria from the little children, who didn’t understand why the rules had changed so suddenly (and not in their favor). No one got hurt, and the young people were given the opportunity to learn an important lesson: Be careful what you wish for.